The Fifteenth District, Part One

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Edmund R. Zimmerman reported to his post as judge of the election for the Fifteenth District the afternoon before the election. He stayed the night and saw the campfires of the small legion of Missourians who came to vote. Come morning, only one of his two counterparts appeared.

The strangers commenced crowding around the polls, and insisted upon having the polls opened. The residents left when the crowd came up.

Legal voters or no, Zimmerman and his fellow judge had a job to do. They settled on a third man to join them and appointed a pair of clerks. But then trouble began anew:

I had considerable difficulty in getting the other judges to commence the election. They would go out and whisper to the crowd outside; both of the other judges were pro-slavery men. I finally told them there was no necessity for deferring the matter longer, and we should open the polls.

One wonders what they hoped to gain by dragging things out. Maybe they intended to have the crowd riled enough to get Zimmerman to resign? Or maybe they were coordinating with the crowd on how to handle the actual voting? Zimmerman gives us nothing to go on. Either way, they had yet to reach the controversies over oaths and the like which had stalled other districts. The judges passed over those difficulties quickly, agreeing not to scrutinize votes excessively and settling on a short oath for dubious voters.

The first man who came up, when the oath was put to him, answered, “I’m here.”

This satisfied the proslavery judges, but not Zimmerman. To appease him, they insisted that the man swear to his actual residency in the district. In other districts, this kind of thing courted violence. In the Fifteenth, the voter grumbled and swore. Precedent set,

A number would come up, and when the oath was put to them, would say they had a claim, or held a claim, or owned a claim, or was there, or something of that sort.

All then took the oath anyway.

As they came up from their wagons they had hemp in their button-holes, and the pass-word that day was, “All right on the hemp.” A greater portion of the time there were men stationed where the votes were received and would examine the men as they came up, and would announce that they were “all right on the hemp.” I do not recollect that a man voted that day  but what had hemp in his button-hole, or on his hat, or some other place where it could be seen. I did not go out to see any of the delegations coming in, but I heard it announced that delegations were coming in, and I would hear cheers, &c.

The plantation belt in Missouri grew mostly hemp. If that obvious inference doesn’t suffice, then Zimmerman provided more direct evidence of the border ruffians’ politics:

There was a great deal of drinking and swearing that day; cursing the abolitionists’; and some intimated at the polls that I ought to be taken out, but none interfered with me further than threats.

They needed go no further as the only candidates on the ballot stood on the proslavery ticket. Briefly two tickets existed, one of proslavery men chosen by Kansans and one proslavery men chosen by Missourians but, as in the Fourteenth District, the Missourian proslavery ticket prevailed. The free-staters thought about organizing a campaign, but knowing full well that the Missourians would swamp out their legal votes they abandoned the idea.

The Missourians did, however, have to suffer crushing disappointment:

Not finding any abolitionist to fight that day, having expressed a strong desire to find one to whip, they got fighting among themselves. I saw one old grey-headed man, about fifty-five or sixty years of age, and a boy about ten years of age by his side crying. The old man was all bloody, having been beaten. Those men were armed, and one of them brandished a pistol in the window before my face. The man was drunk, and put the pistol in the window, with pointing it at me, though he said he would like to kill him an abolitionist.

They threw a fight and no one came, so they had to make their own fun.

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